Shape-Shifting and Transformation

Having left the question of shape-shifting hanging as an afterthought last time, here are some further thoughts on interactions with animals.  These fall into three categories:

1. Personal encounters in the natural environment. I have recorded some instances in verse that had profound significance for me at the time:  HERE
Empathy rather than shape-shifting is involved in these examples.

 2. As a given subject for guided or focused meditation. I have had some significant results in travelling with animal spirit guides in this way and there is the potential for shape-shifting too as in some cases the transition between travelling with an animal guide and becoming that animal to complete the journey has been a feature of some deeper meditations.

3. Literary sources: Ovid’s Metamorphoses give well-known examples of people being involuntarily changed into animals and such transformations seem to be much more common than a willed shape-shifting. There is often an element of punishment or malicious intent here. Irish examples include people changed into salmon, deer and swans. In the Welsh tales notable examples include the boar Twrch Trwyth who is said to have been a king changed into a boar as punishment for evil deeds. In the Fourth Branch of Y Mabinogi. ‘Math fab Mathonwy’, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are changed by Math as a punishment for unnecessarily causing a war and the rape of the maiden Goewin.
 The two brothers are changed first into deer, then into boar and finally into wolves. Math says: “I will make you fare together, and be coupled, and of the same nature as the beasts whose guise you are in”.  There is an element here of having to experience sexual activity from both sides, as the brothers are alternately male and female as their animal guises change. They produce offspring at the end of each year which Math transforms into human form and takes into his care. But this seems primarily to be a banishment from human community. At the end of the three-year banishment they are restored to fully human status and able to take part in human affairs once more.  Later in this tale Lleu temporarily takes the form of an eagle when Gronw tries to kill him and Blodeuwedd is punished by being turned, apparently permanently, into an owl.
 Shape-shifting for a willed purpose is less common. We can set aside the horse nature of Rhiannon as something quite different. Similarly the shifting between human shapes of Pwyll and Arawn and the ability of Gwydion to temporarily conjure illusory horses and dogs are not shape-shifting between humans and animals. There is a brief example of this in Culhwch where Menw transforms himself into a bird in order to confirm that the treasures are between the ears of Twrch Trwyth.  But in the Third Branch of Y Mabinogi, ‘Manawydan fab Llyr’, there is a larger scale example of willed shape-shifting where a horde of attackers in the guise of mice strip the corn that Manawydan has planted and destroy the crop. This is part of the strategy of Llwyd fab Cil Coed to mount a magical attack on the land of Dyfed over which he has already cast an enchantment. We are to suppose that this attack comes from Annwn, the Other World, where willed shape-shifting might be more common. For humans it was a perilous and often unpleasant experience, certainly not to be undertaken on a whim.
Something on Manawydan’s response to the magical attack on Dyfed next time …..


Bo said...

I was supervising a thesis on precisely this topic!

puny human said...

Do you know of examples in your tradition of people shape shifting into trees, plants or mushrooms? I know there was a Greek story about a woman transforming into a tree to escape an unwanted lover . . .

Heron said...

That's interesting Bo, are there any significant conclusions to report from this?

The Greek story you mention, Puny Human, is I think the one about Myrrha who prays to the gods to release her from life without consuming her with death. So she is turned into a tree and:

(in Ted Hughes's words)

Yet she weeps,

The warm drops ooze from her rind.
These tears are still treasured.
To this day they are known by her name - Myrrh

[Adonis was born by breaking through her bark]

There are several metamorphic stories from the Irish tradition, the most famous of which is the Children of Lir who are changed into swans. The bulls of the Tain Bó Cúailnge stories are also said to be transformed humans.

I know of no stories in the Brythonic tradition of people turned into trees (anyone else?) but persoanlly have a strong affinity with tree spirits (as in the Greek dryads and hamadryads) as I also have for water spirits (naiads) of which there are many records in Brythonic folklore.

Magaly Guerrero said...

A very informative post. I'm particularly interested on number 2. Reason being that I'm creating a bibliography on guided meditation and astral projection--a very lose list at this point.

I write paranormal romance and urban fantasy. I do so because I'm fascinated by the roles of the characters in both sub-genres. I read different works of fiction and I see the vivid influence of Paganism. Authors writing about Hekate, Sin, Morrigan... some authors do extensive research and as a result their characters are rich and believable, while others make me wonder "what was s/he thinking?"

I'm working on a novel where transformation of energy, both human and nonhuman, plays a very important part. I want my fictional character to be believable. So if you had to recommend one book that could help me build a foundation for such character, which book would that be?

Thanks for sharing.

Potia said...

I've had experiences in the past in meditation where I shape shifted to travel with animal guides.

I also had an oddly profound moment of connection or memory of being a tree. I'm not really sure what it was but it inspired me to write this a few years ago now.

ArborealI have thrust my feet into the dark, rich earth and fed,
I have drunk from the crystal waters of the depths,
I have clothed myself anew, in shades of green, to greet fair Spring,
I have been washed clean in Summer’s rain,
I have shed my raiment, now gold and scarlet, at Autumn’s command,
I have stood proud and naked before Winter’s sun.
I have housed a million lives within my boundaries,
I have watched lovers embrace at my feet,
I have comforted the lonely child in my arms,
I have been cut down and my body used to bring warmth,
I have grown once more in the cycle of life,
I have been one with the Forest, yet a single being.
I am the Tree.

Heron said...

Thanks for your comments Magaly. I was 'taught' projected meditation as part of the practice of a group I was in many years ago and have used the technique often since for journeying in the Spirit World. I wouldn't call it astral projection (though some do claim to use it in this way) so much as a way of exploring.

I can see that having an assimilated background helps with the writing and gives the sense of something behind the surface story.

One book on the energy behind transformation? Not sure about that. Ovid's Metamorphoses is pretty powerful at portraying this at the psychological level if that's what you're looking for.

Thanks for sharing the poem Potia. That regressive tree memory touches a familiar note with me too.

puny human said...

Thanks for the story of Mryyh. Following up a bit on my own, I found that the Greeks have many examples of human-plant shape shifting. The Cypress tree was a young man whom Apollo transformed. Heliotrope and Frankincense were two of Apollo’s lovers, who turn their heads through the day to watch the sun god move across the sky. Hyacinth was another human lover of Apollo, turned into a flower. The story I remembered was of Daphne, yet another lover of Apollo, whom Zeus turned into the Laurel tree to save her from Apollo’s wrath. There are several more examples and it makes sense that Apollo, the sun god, would be involved in most of them. It is he who quickens the plants to life.

While reading, I had another thought: it is a perfect turnaround when humans are transformed into the plants and animals which are usually transformed into the human through our eating of them!

I was delighted to read Potia's poem. Those are just the sorts of things trees like to tell us about.